x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Diego Forlan is ready for the fight with Uruguay

The Uruguay striker gets subjected to taunts and even eggs, but he takes it all in his stride, writes Andy Mitten.

Diego Forlan of Uruguay.
Diego Forlan of Uruguay.

Better to leave with eggs splattered on the side of the team bus than egg on their faces if they lose.

"We're used to fighting and having everyone against us, it's in our national character," Diego Forlan said.

Tonight, the striker will play for Uruguay against Peru in a vital World Cup qualifier. Peru must win and their fans are singing outside his hotel room in Lima as he speaks.

"They threw eggs at our bus on the way to training," Forlan said. "We expect that."

Uruguay, the two-time World Cup winners and reigning South American champions, have sputtered to their habitual fifth position in the nine-team South American group.

The top four qualify automatically while the fifth-place team head for a two-legged November play-off against either Jordan or Uzbekistan.

"We've left it late and it won't be easy, but we're aiming to finish in the top four," Forlan said, "but we've been fifth before …"

He is right. Uruguay played Australia in the qualifier for the 2006 World Cup finals, losing on penalties in Sydney after two legs. The same countries met four years earlier, too, with La Celeste winning 3-1, allowing Forlan to play in the World Cup finals for the first time in 2002.

"We can handle it," he says of tonight's game in front of a crowd expected to reach 50,000. "We're a nation of three million people, we're used to being David against Goliath. Remember the last World Cup in South Africa when we played Ghana?"

Uruguay had not even reached the 2006 finals in Germany after that Australia tie, yet advanced to the semi-finals in 2010.

"We knew everyone would be supporting the African nation," says Forlan of that quarter-final game. "And we certainly knew when we arrived in the stadium - almost everyone was supporting Ghana, making noises with the horns. Can you imagine that, 80,000 people wanting you to lose? Honestly, it didn't bother me one bit. We thrive in that atmosphere. We're the away team in every tournament that we play. Because that's always been the way, it motivates us."

An enthralling couple of hours followed in Soweto, a clash of styles and attitudes. Forlan, 34, scored his side's goal, levelling after a Sulley Muntari opener. In the 121st minute, Luis Suarez saved a sure goal with his hand and was sent off. Ghana missed the ensuing penalty and Suarez celebrated.

"The crowd went crazy against Luis," Forlan said. "But we won the penalty shoot-out and a great name for all of us, including Luis. We were in the semi-final, the only South American team left in the competition."

Uruguay were eliminated 3-2 by Holland, but Forlan finished as top scorer in South Africa and won the golden boot. It was no fluke. His Uruguay team won the Copa America a year later, scoring in the final when the man they call Cacha became the top scorer in Uruguayan history. Cacha is short for Cachacavcha, an Argentine cartoon witch with long hair and a big nose. "It started in Argentina [where Forlan played with Independiente] and everyone calls it me now," he laughs.

"But both tournaments were incredible," says Cacha of 2010 and '11. "Can you image knocking out Argentina in Argentina? That game went to penalties. Messi was first, then me. Tevez missed. We scored all five. How many countries of our size can claim to do so well in tournaments? Argentina have 12 times as many people as us, Brazil 70."

Suarez equalled him as Uruguay's all-time top scorer this year, but Forlan became the first Uruguay player to play 100 times for his country. He can look back at some incredible strikes in his stellar career with Independiente, Manchester United, Villarreal, Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan and now Internacionale.

"One goal?" he says when asked to pick his best. "I'll take the five in the World Cup in 2010. They helped me win the Golden Ball. The two goals against Fulham in the Europa League final. One goal? For Manchester? A goal against Chelsea in the last minute in 2003.

"Overall? The second one in the 2011 Copa America final, when I became the joint-leading top scorer for Uruguay in history. And we also became the first family in the world to win a continental cup from three different generations, as my father and grandfather had also won the Copa America."

And now to Brazil, where the recently married Forlan plays his club football for Internacionale, the Porto Alegre giants who were world champions in 2006 and came third in the 2010 finals played in Abu Dhabi. Forlan is Inter's top scorer, but his immediate focus is Uruguay's game tonight in Lima, followed by Tuesday's home match against Colombia, the team ranked third in the world. Both are crucial to qualification for the finals next year.

"Colombia have a great generation of players," he says. "It's not just about Falcao, Teofilo Gutierrez is a great goalscorer too."

Uruguay are ranked 12th in the world, while tonight's opponents are 22nd. Peru have not reached a World Cup final since 1982.

Forlan's midfield teammate Nicolas Lodeiro says they are ready for "another final" against a Peru side lying just two places and two points behind them in the group, with four games to play. Uruguay beat Peru 4-2 in the home leg.

"Peru are strong in the middle and up front," he said. "It's their biggest game for years."

The last "final" was away to Venezuela in June, with the home team three points ahead in the group and Uruguay without a win in their five away games. Defeat would have all but ended another World Cup dream for either team. Uruguay won, 1-0.

"Edinson Cavani scored early," recalls Forlan, who played 90 minutes alongside the most expensive transfer in football this year, until the Gareth Bale deal.

"What an atmosphere, the fans called us every name. They hated us.

"I love that. I love playing away when nobody likes you.

"It inspires me to silence them. We won. We did what we needed to do. Victory gave us belief that we can do it again."

They need to do the same tonight, before Tuesday's Colombia match against a country who beat Uruguay 4-0 in Barranquilla a year ago.

"That was never a 4-0 game," Forlan said.

If Uruguay can keep up their form - they are unbeaten at home - they could catch Chile, Ecuador or Colombia above them, though group leaders Argentina are strong favourites to stay there.

They only need to finish fourth.

Chile are the team to be caught.

La Celeste are five points behind, but with one game behind. Chile have three tough remaining games at home to Venezuela and Ecuador and away to Colombia.

Uruguay also play Ecuador away and Argentina at home next month. If not, it is another fifth-place qualifier.

"We're ready for whatever awaits," Forlan said. "Eggs, songs, opponents. I love the South American group. There's not a single easy game."